Can we #MalaysiaBoleh in Malaysia?


The inventor of the pendrive. The founders of Grab. The first Malaysian Nobel Peace Prize winner. The first female Malaysian Michelin-star chef. The two leads of the first all-Asian major Hollywood movie in 25 years. The president of one of the world's largest tech firms.

What do they all have in common? They were all born and raised here. And they came into their own elsewhere.

Recently, we celebrated another Malaysian making it big in the world - 28-year-old Kimberley Ho (pic), who made it into Forbes' 2019 30 under 30 list, for co-founding United States-based children skincare company Evereden.

When I read Ho's story, two trains of thought ran through my mind.

The first was: Oh my God, she's my age. What am I doing with my life? I should have listened to my mother. Study medicine. Become a doctor. Settle down and have kids. But here I am, wide awakeat 2am on a Thursday night, writing a column probably three aunties will read. Where did it all go wrong?

The second thing I thought was: Would Ho have achieved the same level of success if she tried launching her business here?

Her profile reads painfully similar to the typical Malaysian-born success story. Born in Malaysia or to Malaysian parents, emigrated at a young age or after schooling, perhaps struggled a little overseas, found massive success, gets covered by local press and have Malaysians online heap praises, claiming their success as the country's.

#MalaysiaBoleh" some would exclaim. Yes, it is a nice sentiment. It's nice thinking that one of us made waves outside and that the world was noticing our little peninsula.

But why is the theme of finding success once you're out of the country such a recurring one in our headlines? Are Malaysia Boleh-worthy moments only possible outside of Malaysia?

I scoured The Star's archives to find a bona fide homegrown hit. I could only find one - Robiah Ibrahim, a Johor woman who developed a method to identify the areas of buildings where lightning were most likely to strike for better structural protection. This may not sound as amazing to the layman, but her discovery is celebrated by international experts as a "scientific breakthrough".

Robiah made this discovery in 1995 and presented this in a paper at a technical conference then. But as her husband, fellow lightning researcher Hartono Zainal Abidin, wrote - her research was rejected by local academics "since she had neither postgraduate qualifications nor laboratory experience".

Her paper sat on the shelf for eight years before an Australian expert suggested Robiah's method as the basis of a new lightning rod placement method for modern, complex-shaped high-rises.

Australia adopted Robiah's method as a national lightning protection standard in 2003. In 2006, the method was included in the new international lightning protection standard, IEC62305. It was only in 2007, 12 years, after Robiah made her discovery, did Malaysia - the country where this method was developed, incorporated it into its own lightning protection standards.

Robiah's story, to me, is testament to a larger issue in Malaysia when it comes to cultivating world innovators. We make it hard for them to come up here.

Would Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh be the actress she is now if she stayed in the Malaysian filmmaking industry? Would Mohd Nasarudin Mohd Yusof, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as part of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), still have been able to win it in Malaysia, where even he said had no work for his specialisation? 

Could Puja Shanmugam, owner of tech firm SoPark Corporations, have risen up to the level she is at now in Malaysia - where only 15% of corporate leadership is being helmed by women? Would the country's academics have seen the potential of Pua Khein-Seng's research in the pendrive? Or have left it on the floor like Robiah's?

It doesn't pay to be "too ambitious" in Malaysia. This isn't me saying this. It was a quote from Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan, who was commenting on entrepreneurialism among Malaysia's youth.

He said being "too ambitious" creates problems for employers due to the differences in expectations.

"Young people need to be more realistic about what they can achieve given their current situation," he said in an interview with The Star last year.

Essentially what he is saying is: It's okay to have dreams just as long as you still fit in the norm of the society around you. If our founding fathers shared his view, we would still be under British rule. With all due respect to Mr Shamsuddin, this mentality is precisely the reason why we may never have lightning in a bottle in Malaysia.

Now I'm not saying every Malaysian needs to sell off all their worldly possessions and invest everything they own into that pipe dream they have. I know full well that myself and many others, are mediocre and may never amount to anything earth shatteringly brilliant. And that is okay.

But what about the next Robiah Ibrahim? Or the next Michelle Yeoh? Or the next Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling? Are we going to be a country that pushes innovators and their dreams overseas because they don't fit the mould and only celebrates their successes when they've made it? Or are we going to be the country that is going to have their back and let them know that their struggle is ours and that everything they need to succeed is right here?

Kimberley Ho , Malaysia Boleh